As I pushed my way through the luffing curtain and into the dim warmth of Wayan, I experienced an intense wave of déjà vu. Scattered everywhere were wooden bowls brimming with red chiles, galangal, and stick cinnamon; oranges, star anise, and turmeric rhizomes. Carved wooden latticework decorated bare brick walls, like being in an old colonial building somewhere in Southeast Asia, but with no particular fixed point of reference. I felt like I’d stepped into Vong again, Jean-George Vongerichten’s now-shuttered but legendary attempt to wed Thai flavors with French technique that opened 27 years ago.
The designer of both spaces was the Rockwell Group. So I guess it comes as no surprise that David Rockwell’s idea of what such a restaurant should look like hasn’t changed much. This time, the focus is Indonesian food. And the chef is not Jean-Georges but his son Cedric, a journeyman chef whose previous accomplishments in the city are more or less limited to Perry Street, a good Franco-American restaurant facing the Hudson River in the West Village.
He’s assisted in this effort by Ochi Latjuba Vongerichten, his Indonesian-born wife who also attended the Culinary Institute of America. The two have lately opened a pair of restaurants in Jakarta (one called Vong Kitchen, the other Le Burger, both also designed by Rockwell), prior to springing Wayan on Spring Street. Though the name sounds like it could belong to country western band, it’s a Balinese moniker referring to the first-born child, a nod to the fact that it’s Cedric’s first solo restaurant. His famous father is reportedly not even an investor.
A well-lit, Instagram friendly bar confronts you as you enter, with tables scattered here and there; then you’ll negotiate a long hallway decorated with more spices and fruits, past an open kitchen with a few stools for observing the cooks, finally stepping into a large dark dining room. The place seats about 80, and the entire effect is perhaps too cocktail lounge-y.
The satays ($12 to $15) are superb. The two I tried came impaled on slender wooden sticks, five to an order, composed of tapering cylinders of ground chicken and pork, instead of the little morsels of skewered flesh that satays often entail. The chicken and pork versions came with a chunky splotch of peanut sauce, and the sweet, soy-driven sauce called kecap manis, respectively. These satays were high points of two early meals at Wayan.
A couple of other high points come to mind. Among larger dishes, sautéed whole shrimp ($22) features six mighty specimens, antennae all atangle, sluiced with a sweet garlicky sambal. Jump in and eat the entire animal, carapace crunching and legs tickling the inside of your mouth. It’s daring of Wayan to present the crustaceans in this way. Less daring but nonetheless delicious is a mild and stomach-soothing curry called yellow chicken, with a definitive crisp skin that may remind you of the fried chicken at Perry Street.
These dishes come pretty close to traditional Indonesian cooking; others represent transformations or outright inventions. The biggest disappointment was a gado-gado —normally a salad of cooked vegetables, including lots of spuds and boiled eggs in a coconut-laced peanut sauce, topped with crunchy shrimp chips. Here the name has been purloined by an ordinary avocado salad, albeit a lively one with a very good dressing.
Another disappointment was a generous rack of pork ribs ($26) with a soy and tamarind glaze that did a good imitation of a French demi-glace. The meat was abundant but the flavor was dull. Ditto with a plate of oddly gluey fried squid topped with a bland pink sauce that caused a friend to exclaim, “This is just ordinary bar food.”
But when we ate our way around the menu, we found most of the food memorable. Cedric Vongerichten has a way of using chiles that preserves the flavor but banishes most of the heat. If I had one criticism to level at his generally appealing bill of fare, that would be it. If I had another it would be that the chef should replace tepid dishes like the vegetarian spring rolls ($14) with some zingier ones.
Our second meal finished up with a selection from the dessert menu, a pandan custard ($12) with a lava floe of tart passion fruit syrup across the top, the black seeds looking up at us like little insect eyes. It’s one of the best things on the menu, and you shouldn’t miss it.